Poems by Jamey Gallagher

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Totems

by Jamey Gallagher

From Canary Spring 2013

Jamey is about to move from the shores of the Tuckahoe River to the Gunpowder-Patapsco Watershed.

1. Tadpole

Our family called it the “Swift River,” which was suburban American for “Pemigawasset.” We would wake up early on a Saturday or a Sunday, well before sunrise, and climb into the blue Ford. If we were lucky enough to make it to the White Mountains before other families, we would get our spot—across the river from a small falls, an oval of hard sand large enough for only one family, two if the other family was pushy enough.

The Pemigawasset River was always cold, the numbing cold of snowmelt, and if we swam at all it was for only short periods of time. We would swim to a flat granite boulder in the middle of the river, always crowded with jumpers. My favorite thing about the Swift River, when I was eight years old, was the existence of tadpoles that darted in the shallow pools of perfectly clear water surrounding the sand. These tadpoles were thick and black, with flagellating tails. They seemed far more substantial than the tadpoles near our house. I would imagine squeezing their plump bodies as I collected them in buckets and watched them swim. The cold, clear water would catch the sunlight, and the blue or green plastic would seem to glow, and inside the bucket black shapes would dart like shadows.

Sometimes my parents would allow me to bring a number of tadpoles home in carefully covered buckets. After a two-hour drive south, we would place them on the driveway before our orange split-entry house. They seemed less magical in this setting.

I don’t remember exactly what we did with the tadpoles after we got them home, but I know that they died pretty quickly.

Our relationship to animals, with animals, is mysterious. We use them to fill symbolic slots that we don’t know how to fill otherwise. Some animals become totems of innocence. We know that animals are not innocent, but we forgive them their savagery. Other animals take on the guise of the unknown. We look into their eyes and see ourselves—but also something sublime.

2. Toad

I never intentionally killed anything until I was 10 years old. A neighbor and I found a toad in his backyard near a large woodpile. It was summer, and the woodpile was stacked tight. We lifted the toad from the long grass and passed it from hand to hand, waiting for it pee on our palms, feeling its rough and smooth skin.

“Throw it against the woodpile,” my friend said.

I stood about fifteen feet from the woodpile. I wound up, using skills I had learned as a decent Little League pitcher, and let the toad go. The second that it left my hand I felt something happen to me. A reaction of the body. I wanted to get the toad back, but it was too late. I watched it spin in the air, its stubby back legs flipping over its front. It hit the side of the woodpile with a dull, wet thud before dropping. Pink oozed from its open mouth.

I acted like it didn’t matter. This was just the kind of thing that boys did.

We think of animals as symbols, but it’s not always clear what those symbols represent. Animals are over-determined signifiers. Us, not-us. Wild, domesticated. Ugly and beautiful. At different times of our lives animals represent different things, depending on our needs.

3. Moose I

I spent most of my high school years doing stupid things. Drugs, punk music, minor acts of vandalism. My friends and I were idiots, and every few weeks we would drive up to the White Mountains, where, for a couple of hours, we would stop being idiots. During winter, we’d walk down empty paths and follow ice-choked rivers. In our Doc Martens and Converse All-Stars we’d slip off rocks, fall and laugh, our denim jackets too thin for the cold, gaping at the pink and purple and blue of the ice.

Once, we drove up to Canada, leaving our safe suburban homes in southern New Hampshire at 11 p.m. We stopped at a convenience store and bought Spam and crackers, which served as our dinner. I drove my first car, a red Subaru wagon.

We were on the Kancamagus Highway driving fast over snow-heaves when I saw a dark shape on the road ahead of us and pressed the brakes. The road had been recently plowed and the tires grabbed asphalt. We stopped about two feet away from the substantial side of a moose. Its fur was brown and black, matted, and it turned its huge skull to look in our direction. Over the top of the car, I don’t think it even saw us. It was probably eight feet tall, its rack as big across as the car.

“Holy shit,” someone in the backseat said.

All I could do was nod.

We are not wild, and animals are not (ever, truly) domesticated. But nothing really separates us. You don’t think animals tell themselves stories about the world?

4. Moose II

Now I am the father of two daughters. In many ways I am still an idiot. There’s only so much I can do about that. One recent May an old high school friend and I took our kids camping in the White Mountains. It was colder than we’d expected, and it rained for almost the entire weekend. Even in the damp, we were able to build campfires, and we kept warm telling ghost stories, but in the middle of each night rain fell hard, pinging against the plastic tent cover. My tent leaked, and I had to shift my three-year-old out of the frigid pool of water that had collected inside and lie in the puddle myself, shivering, soaked through. No one complained, but we were all miserable.

During the second day, the clouds broke and the sun emerged briefly. We drove down the Kancamagus at about five o’clock, toward dusk, my friend driving his twins in his truck while I followed in our car. We pulled over to the side of the road. Out in some mountain fields, full of brambles and dead trees and white birch, we saw five moose, both large and small, both young and old, walking slowly toward a stand of trees. The last of the sun lit the wet woods. I looked over at my two daughters, who sat staring out the windows.

“What do you think, guys?” I asked.

“Magnificent,” my three year old said. It was her word of the month. She’d been saying it everywhere, for every conceivable reason. Usually it was just something to smile at—a cute bit of precocity. Right at that moment, though, it fit.




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